Teacher on Trial Depicts a Classroom in Chaos
First-Grade Instructor Accused of Assault
Says Students Hurled Objects and Insults
By Bill Miller Washington Post Staff Writer Wednesday, December 10, 1997; Page B07
Allison York, charged with cruelty to children, told a D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday that she wanted to be a good teacher for her first-grade pupils at a Southeast Washington elementary school. But instead of teaching, she said, "a lot of my time went into breaking up fights."
She testified that the children in her class called each other insulting names, hit each other and threw scissors, crayons and other objects. Faced with such unruliness, York said, she did her best to keep everyone safe. "I'm the teacher," she said, "I'm responsible for the entire class."
York, 37, described herself as a hard-working, caring educator -- not a criminal, as the prosecutor has depicted her. She is on trial for allegedly holding back the arms of three pupils on March 29, 1996, so that their classmates could hit them. The children, who testified last week, said she ordered their beatings for no apparent reason.
York said she did not instigate the fighting at McGogney Elementary School but tried to stop it. According to York's testimony, this is what she was dealing with that afternoon: 6-year-old pupil Corey Yates, who threatened to throw an orange at her; Corey's 7-year-old classmate Brittany Darden, who yanked a pencil sharpener from the wall and appeared ready to throw it; and 6-year-old pupil James Mills, who was kicking York.
All three pupils appeared as prosecution witnesses last week, testifying that York held their hands behind their backs while classmates punched them.
"The class became out of control," York testified. She said the incidents involving the orange, the pencil sharpener and the kicking came one after another in a matter of three to five chaotic seconds. "What was on my mind was the safety of myself and the students in the classroom," she said.
York said she grabbed the orange from Corey, and then his classmates rose to beat him. She said she never touched Brittany or James but saw them get hit in the confusion. All three children, she said, had caused trouble on other occasions in her class, and she never had a good relationship with them.
The three children, all now 8, testified that they were not misbehaving when the incidents took place. Corey said he was held back and hit first, as a teaching assistant stood by. Brittany and James said they were grabbed by York and struck by classmates because they did not join the attack on Corey.
The teaching assistant, Tanya Green, testified Monday that she saw York grab Corey and heard York tell the class "something to the effect of `Get up and get Corey.' " Green, who was nine months pregnant at the time, said she did not intervene because she was afraid she would get hurt. She said another student, a girl, came to Corey's rescue and whisked him out of the room.
Green testified that she tried to alert Principal Cedric Lynch, but that he told her he was at lunch and "he'd talk to me later." But Lynch told jurors he knew nothing of the allegations until Corey's grandfather arrived at the school, in the 3400 block of Wheeler Road SE, to pick up the boy. Within three days, the other pupils came forward, and York was arrested.
Defense attorney Sol Rosen has tried repeatedly to elicit testimony that the alleged victims were "rambunctious 6-year-olds" who were striking one another because of their own differences, not because of any conduct by York. But Judge Henry F. Greene has limited questioning about previous episodes in the classroom, saying such testimony would not be relevant to what happened in March 1996. The judge permitted York to testify about some of her dealings with the children.
York testified that she earlier had sent Corey to the principal's office and called his mother. She said that she had taken similar steps with James and that Brittany had talked back and hit her at times.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Taylor, who challenged York's assertions during cross-examination yesterday, has sought to convince the jury that York was not restraining the children to prevent harm. He is trying to show that she kept holding them to permit and encourage the beatings. York is charged with three counts of cruelty to children and three counts of assault. The jury is expected to hear closing arguments and begin deliberations today.
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